“There’s no hope for us anymore” cries the hero, redeeming himself with one last act of humanity before allowing himself to be consumed by the flames of Edo-era barbarity. Another tale of feudal exploitation, Teruo Ishii’s Inferno of Torture (徳川いれずみ師：責め地獄, Tokugawa Irezumi-shi: Seme Jigoku) opens with an otherwise unrelated scene of female crucifixion followed by an elaborate beheading, presenting both of these events with a degree of historical authenticity they do not perhaps possess. Nevertheless, his central tale which turns out to be less about two women than two men, turns on the exploitation of female bodies, subtly suggesting that the modern society is itself founded on female exploitation.
Though dropping the portmanteau structure frequently employed in the Joys of Torture series, Ishii returns from the prologue with the end of the first arc in which the presumed heroine, Yumi (Yumiko Katayama), makes a stealthy visit to a ghostly cemetery in which she trashes the grave of a man named Genzo (Shinichiro Hayashi), digs him up and dismembers his body to retrieve a key we later see him swallow which she hopes will unlock her womanhood currently imprisoned by an ornate chastity belt, only the key doesn’t fit.
Flashing back again, we see Yumi forced into sex work in payment of a debt and imprisoned in a labyrinthine brothel which specialises in bondage and torture under the guidance of lesbian madam Oryu* (Mieko Fujimoto) and her samurai fixer Samejima (Haruo Tanaka). The brothel’s USP is in its tattooed women which neatly leads us into the main narrative as Yumi’s body becomes a battleground contested by two men, top tattoo artists in search of the perfect canvas in order to win, ironically, the hand of their master’s pure and innocent daughter Osuzu (Masumi Tachibana).
Horihide (Teruo Yoshida) and Osuzu are in love, but the dark and brooding Horitatsu (Asao Koike) is determined to frustrate his rival’s desires by becoming the successor to Osuzu’s dying father, the tattooist Horigoro. The “hori” which prefixes each of the men’s names relates to the process of tattooing and comes from the verb to chisel, hinting at the way they prick and channel their desires into the canvas which is human skin. Horihide is our “hero”, described by Horigoro as the light to Horitatsu’s dark, Horitatsu currently making more of an impact with his designs of violent intensity, but each of them is in a very real way content to use and exploit the bodies of women without their full consent in order to practice their art. It is essentially an act of violence if not of “torture”.
Meanwhile, Oryu and Samejima are profiting off their “merchandise” more directly in participating in the trafficking of tattooed ladies to lecherous foreigners displaying an early fetishisation of Asian women. This being late Edo, Japan is still in its isolationist period in which fraternising with foreigners was illegal which is why the action eventually takes us to Nagasaki and the Dutch trading port of Dejima, here presented as a nexus of corruption, where Samejima and Oryu prove themselves very much in league with foreign powers dealing with powerful businessman Clayton (Yusuf Hoffman), despite his name apparently a Dutchman, and his Chinese associates. Like Nikkatsu’s borderless action films of the ‘50s and ‘60s, Inferno of Torture indulges in an unpleasant Sinophobia which culminates in a chase through a crowded Chinese wet market in which we catch sight of dogs hanging bound ready for the slaughter in similar poses to those of the women in the brothel, not to mention thrusting snakes, before being confronted by a basket full of adorable puppies presumably headed for a dark destination, while we finally rediscover Hidetatsu collapsed in an opium den after being forcibly addicted by Oryu as a means of control.
“This is a house of horrors” the Chinese gang leader tells a group of women bought by Samejima from a prison and promised a life of wealth and ease as geisha catering to high class clients. It’s difficult to tell if Ishii is critiquing Edo-era misogyny or that of the present day, or merely revelling in it with increasingly perverse scenes of sexual violence and degradation which continually imply that women have no role or value outside of reflecting the desires of men while those who try to claim their own agency are brutally put down by an inherently misogynistic, patriarchal society. After a Count of Monte Cristo-esque subplot in which Horihide is framed for murder but escapes to plot his revenge, the psychedelic final showdown returns us to the tattooists’ artistic face off as they again weaponise female bodies to embody their own ambitions, Horihide turning a blameless young woman into an iridescent peacock to get back at her father. Nevertheless, he finally reassumes his humanity in ending his mission of vengeance before it takes more innocent lives while accepting that he may now be too corrupted to return to his former life. Elegantly composed often unconsciously recalling the keyhole in Yumi’s chastity belt as it imprisons women within the peephole of the frame, Inferno of Torture ends exactly as it began, with a scene of grim and ironic punishment in which the female form is itself obliterated.
Inferno of Torture is available on blu-ray from Arrow Video in a set which also includes an in-depth commentary from Tom Mes discussing the treatment of the various actresses involved with the series, Ishii, and Toei in general; Jasper Sharp’s Miskatonic lecture Erotic Grotesque Nonsense & the Foundations of Japan’s Cult Counterculture; and a booklet featuring new writing by Chris D.
Original trailer (no subtitles)
*This character’s name is rendered as “Oryu” in the subtitles but “Otatsu” (different ways of reading the same character which means “dragon”) in the accompanying booklet.